The Acton Institute blog has a nice and timely post on Calvin Coolidge and the foundational truths of government. Of all the Coolidge quotes author Ray Nothstine marshals, I like none better than the 30th president’s assessment of the progressive movement: “Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.” I think Coolidge would be heartened by social science findings that the collective intelligence of many often results in superior outcomes than when supposedly elite circles make top-down decisions that somehow always get sidetracked by unintended consequences.
Calvin Coolidge’s daily column of March 13, 1931, had as its theme the then recently held conference of the National Progressive Conference. Apparently at that point, no one was yet aware that the progressive movement asa force in U.S. politics was on its last legs, about to be absorbed into the New Deal Democratic Party of the 1930s. One is struck by Coolidge’s fairness: rather than condemning this gathering of what were after all fairly left-wing characters, he is willing to grant them sincerity, while remaining skeptical about the viability of their programs.
It is notable that Coolidge states as a universally shared viewpoint that the rewards of industry should be “even better” distributed. This alone gives the lie to the standard caricature of him as a materialistic stooge of capitalism. Equally notable is his qualification that this goal will not be reached by “more politics, or more government.” Evidently, Coolidge believed in the invisible hand of markets rather than heavy-handed government intervention to bring about prosperity.
There is no need for hasty judgment on the progressive’s conference held inWashington. Many sincere people attended it. Their assumption that they are better than any of the political parties will do no harm. Apparently they have an ambitious program. They seek to guide all other public officers. Their official members have not always shown great capacity for co-operation. If they now learn to co-operate with each other they later may be able better to co-operate with other members of the Congress.
The conference has accomplished little by naked criticism. Every one knows that the government is not perfect. Almost everyone suspects that it will not be made perfect for some time. Yet we all want to see it improved. We all desire progress, prosperity and an even better distribution of the rewards of industry, although in these we now surpass the world. Very few now believe that these things can be secured by more extravagance, more loafing, more politics, or more government.
The discussion may prove helpful. A reduction of vague ideas to specific proposals usually shows whether they are sound. The formation of a constructive common-sense program for perfecting the country will not be found easy.
In his eminently worthwhile book, “America’s Great Depression” (available as PDF at the Mises Institute website), Murray N. Rothbard characterizes 1931 as “the tragic year” – the year in which international crises as well as Hoover administration misjudgments pushed the country after an optimistic start to the year, ineluctably into the Depression.